Ancient Iran & Central Asian as the Cradle of Civilization
Iran and its immediate surroundings are home to many ancient sites whose origins predate historical records. Some of the regions could very well have been a cradle, if not, the cradle of civilization.
This page is intended to be read alongside its companion page, Aryan Prehistory from the Stone to Iron Ages.
Prehistoric Ages: Stone to Iron Ages. Categories of Time
The prehistoric finds at archaeological sites are frequently categorized according to Ages. It is a very imprecise and sometime confusing method of categorization since the time at which these ages occurred is different in different regions. Development from the use of stone implements to metal implements did not occur at the same time in different regions. Nor did the transition from stone implements to metal implements take place at one point in time. While it is thought that copper was the first metal used for the making of tools, this author feels that may not apply to Central Asia, where gold was the more readily available metal. We have found that when it comes to interpreting the results of finds in the Iran-Shahr sites, archaeologists are notoriously fanciful in the interpretation of their results, and the use of such an imprecise tool as the Ages, adds to the confusion in trying to make sense of their findings. As Raphael Pumpelly (see below) discovered, there is also a strong bias in how archaeologists interpret their findings. We wonder if archaeologists are more politicians than they are scientists. To compound our misery there are different Age designation systems and some that employ archaic terms.
One system is to divide the prehistory of humankind according to the materials used to make tools and artefacts :
- Stone Age
- Palaeolithic Age (Old Stone Age - 2.5 million to 15,000 years ago)
- Mesolithic / Epipaleolithic Age (Middle Stone Age - 15,000 to 10,000 years ago)
- Neolithic Age - (New Stone Age - 10,000 to 6,000-4,000 years ago)
- Metal Age
- Gold Age (? to ? years ago)
- Copper (Chalcolithic, Eneolithic or Æneolithic) Age (4,300-3,200 BCE)
- Bronze Age (3,300 to 1,300 BCE)
- Iron Age (1,300 to 900 BCE)
Tepe and Tappehs
We find various prehistoric sites in Iran-Shahr, the greater Iran region called a tepe (also spelt depe, tape, tappeh, tappa, teppeh or tappe). The word means a mound or small (artificial) hill. The mound or hill is formed by soil covering an ancient settlement, or soil formed from mud-brick structures that later human occupation have compressed over time into artificial hills. In treeless areas, the presence of a tepe suddenly rising from an otherwise flat terrain, may indicate ancient settlement buried under the soil. The tepe sometimes consists of the different layers of construction, each with a different dating. The lower layers are therefore normally the older layers.
Raphael Pumpelly (1837-1923)
Champion of a Central Asian Cradle of Civilization
(From our page on Nisaya / Anau)
More than a century ago an unlikely geologist from New York put forth a proposition that "the fundamentals of civilization - organized village life, agriculture, the domestication of animals, weaving," (including mining and metal work) "originated in the oases of Central Asia long before the time of Babylon."
Raphael Pumpelly arrived at this conclusion after visiting Central Asia as a geologist and observing the ruins of cities on the ancient shorelines of huge, dried inland seas. By studying the geology of the area, he became one of the first individuals to investigate how environmental conditions could influence human settlement and culture. Pumpelly speculated that a large inland sea in central Asia might have once supported a sizeable population. He knew from his travels and study that the climate in Central Asia had become drier and drier since the time of the last ice age. As the sea began to shrink, it could have forced these people to move west, bringing civilization to westward and to the rest of the world. He hypothesized that the ruins of cities he saw were evidence of a great ancient civilization that existed when Central Asia was more wet and fertile than it is now.
Such assertions that civilization as we know it originated in Central Asia sounded radical at a time when the names of Egypt and Babylon, regions connected to the Bible, were considered to be the cradle of civilization. But Raphael Pumpelly was persistent. Forty years after his first trip to Central Asia, he convinced the newly established Andrew Carnegie Foundation to fund an expedition. Since the Russians controlled Central Asia, he charmed the authorities in Saint Petersburg into granting him permission for an archaeological excavation. The latter even provided Pumpelly with a private railcar. At the age of 65, Pumpelly was given the opportunity to prove his theory and he wasted no time in starting his work.
On a previous trip, while travelling on Trans-Caspian railway along the foothills of rugged Kopet-Dag mountains which rise up to form the vast Iranian plateau, the three mounds or kurgans at Anau had caught Raphael Pumpelly's eye.
Anau is a site eight kilometres southeast of Turkmenistan's Ashgabat modern-day capital, Ashgabat, and its name is derived from Abi-Nau, meaning new water. In earlier times, its name was Gathar.
In the delta around Anau, there are three mounds or kurgans (also called tepe or depe), each containing ruins from a different period. The north mound has layers from the 5th millennium BCE to the 3rd millennium BCE, at which time in history the river Keltechinar appears to have changed course causing a population shift to the south mound that has layers from the mid-3rd millennium BCE to the 1st millennium BCE (the Bronze Age). The east mound has the most recent (medieval to classical period) ruins.
In 1886, a Russian general A. V. Komarov who mistakenly thought the mound was an ancient burial site with treasure worth plundering, had his army brigade cut through the north mound, bisecting the mound. When Pumpelly visited the site in 1903, his training as a geologist enabled him to see twenty stratified occupational layers in this trench. Pumpelly returned to the site in 1904 to start excavations along the Russian trench using sophisticated methods - methods in stark contrast with the plundering dig of the Russians.
|Anau tepe in the distance|
Pumpelly carefully excavated the north mound by digging a series of eight terraces and shafts. He carefully labelled the position of each item he uncovered. He employed fine-scale archaeology methods (methods that are now utilized by modern archaeologists) by using sieves to capture seeds and tiny bones. Then he had specialists, such as botanists and anatomists, analyze his finds. These pioneering methods would only gradually be used by archaeologists over the next century. In the absence of modern methods like radiocarbon dating, Pumpelly used his training as a geologist, keeping careful stratigraphic records to date sites. His findings would come close to matching data collected years later using modern technology and at considerably greater cost.
Pumpelly's early interest in how humans respond to environmental change is still a keynote feature of archaeology. The kurgan digs unearthed pottery, objects of stone and metal, hearths and cooking utensils - even the remains of skeletons of children found near hearths. He discovered evidence of domesticated animals and cultivated wheat - evidence of the civilization the sought.
|Watch towers along Anau city walls|
Later Pumpelly was to write in his memoirs, "A close watch was kept to save every object, large and small,... and to note its relation to its surroundings. I insisted that every shovelful contained a story if it could be interpreted." Indeed, every shovelful, even grain, and every shard had a story to tell.
The story of Anau that emerged was one of a planned walled city that was home to a community that farmed wheat, manufactured artefacts and traded with its neighbours.
His work had barely begun, when in 1904 a plague of locusts "filled the trenches faster than they could be shovelled," and plunged the area into famine, forcing him to abandon the dig, never to return. This phenomenon should not go unnoticed since it might provide clues on the reasons why some settlements appear to have been abandoned in ancient times.
Traveling eastward, he noted the mounds dotting the foothills of the Kopet-Dag, indicating that Anau was not an isolated town, but part of a community of settlements that stretched for a few hundred kilometres, settlements that based themselves on the waters and fertile soil brought down from the mountains. Leaving the mountains, Pumpelly followed the river Murgab north towards the Kara Kum desert. Extreme heat stopped him from exploring the upper reaches of the Murgab delta. Had he done so, he could surely have arrived on the unmistakeable depe mounds of Gonur. That discovery would have to wait for another seventy years and the efforts of a Russian archaeologist of Greek descent, Viktor Sarianidi.
Tepe Hissar, an archaeological site of largest known urban settlement in the northeast corner of present-day Iran, flourished from 4,500 to 1,900 BCE (Metal Age). It is located ninety kilometres southeast of the Caspian Sea, near the modern city of Damghan, along the south slopes of the Alburz mountains, and south of Turkmenistan. Hissar was strategically and centrally located on the east-west trade route. Amongst the artefacts found at the site, were those made from lapis lazuli turquoise from Badakshan in the east. According to The Shelby White-Leon Levy Program for Archaeological Publications, Harvard University: "Its strategic location along the major East-West trade route, between southern Mesopotamia, Iranian plateau and Central Asia, further heightens its presumed economic and political role in the region. The importation of lapis and turquoise implies connections with the east, and at the same time links with the west have been documented by blank clay tablets reminiscent of Proto-Elamite tablets, and a cylinder seal. Its importance, therefore, as a cornerstone of chronology, cannot be overemphasized."
According to the British Museum in their description of a Bronze Age, c. 2400-2000 BCE, Lapis lazuli stamp seal from the Ancient Near East (? - placed in Room 52 - Ancient Iran), "... Behind the man are a long-horned goat above a zebu. This last animal is related in style to similar creatures depicted on seals from the Indus Valley civilization, which was thriving at this time. There were close connections between the Indus Valley civilization and eastern Iran. One of the prized materials that was traded across the region was lapis lazuli, the blue stone from which this seal is made."
D. Collon, 'Lapis lazuli from the east: a stamp seal in the British Museum', Ancient Civilizations from Scy, 5/1 (1998), pp. 31-39
|Chlorite stone vase 22 cm high from Tepe Yahya c 2500 BCE.|
The design has an overlapping pattern and three bands of palm trees.
Tepe Yahya (lat 28°20'N, long 56°52'E) is a modern name given to an historical site in Kerman Province, Iran, some 220 km south of Kerman city and about 90 km south-west of Jiroft, and 90 km south-southeast of Baft in the Sogun valley of the river Kish-e Shur near Dowlatabad (there are several towns by this name in Kerman and Iran) and the Hormozgan Province border.
The site's archaeological levels ranging from the Chalcolithic (sixth millennium BCE - the transition age between Stone and Copper) to the Bronze Age (fourth millennium BCE). The site appears to have been continuously occupied from the 5th to 3rd millennia BCE, during which time it flourished as a centre for the production and distribution of soapstone products before being abandoned during the 2nd millennium. It was reoccupied from c 1000 BCE to c 400 CE.
Archaeologists have divided the site into the following levels (of occupation):
Period VII 5500-4500 BCE
Period VI-VC 4500-3600 BCE
Period VA-B 3600-3200 BCE
Period IVC2 3100-2800 BCE
Period IVB6-1 2400-2000 BCE
Period IVA 1800-1400 BCE
Period III 800-500 BCE
Period II 500-275 BCE
Period I 200 BCE - 300 CE
|Terracotta clay tablet with cuneiform style inscription on the distribution of grain rations. c 3100-2900 BC|
Artefacts discovered at the site include inscribed cuneiform (so-called Proto-Elamite style) tablets and chlorite and steatite (soapstone) ware (also see our page on Jiroft). Tepe Yahya was a centre for the production and distribution of soapstone articles found at the site and which date from the 5th to 3rd millennia BCE. The Yahya soapstone articles include vessels carved of the gray-green stone.
An examination of the site has revealed that the ruins are that of an ancient manufacturing and trading centre. At the site, workshops were found with vessels and the chlorite or steatite raw materials for their manufacture. The stones were available in the nearby hills. Vessels decorated in the Yahya style have been found across the ancient Near East from Syria and Sumer (Early Dynastic) in Mesopotamia to the Indus Valley, lending credence and evidence of the flourishing long-distance trade of the times. The Yahya artefacts have been found in palaces and temples or in graves of the wealthy in major urban centers.
|Bronze Age (2nd millennium BCE) painted pottery|
from Turang at the Louvre Museum, Paris.
Image credit: dynamosquito at Flickr
(From our page on Vehrkana, Varkana, Gorgan)
An archaeological site known locally as Tureng Tape (also spelt Torang/Turang/Turanga Depe/Tepe/Tappeh/Tapeh/Tappe/Tappa), the hill of the pheasants, is located 22 km (18 as the crow flies) northeast of Gorgan near Kuran Tappeh. Excavations in 1932 revealed five distinct layers, the earliest dating back to the sixth millennium BCE (the Chalcolithic or Copper Age) and the latest to between 630-1050 CE.
During the Bronze Age (second half of the third millennium and the early second millennium BCE) Tureng Tepe was one of the largest centres of north-eastern Iran yet discovered. Gold, bronze, and stone objects, dating to this time, called the Astarabad Treasure, were found at the site. The culture of Tureng Tepe during the city's zenith closely parallels that of Tepe Hissar.
Occupied until the medieval ages, Torang was also a caravanserai, a caravan station, along the Aryan trade roads until it was destroyed during The Mongol period (1220-1380).
|Turang Tapeh. Image credit: Various|
The appearance of a plain grey pottery dated to the third millennium BCE has led to speculation that the change marks the entry of Aryan tribes into the region. This reasoning is highly speculative. Nevertheless, the site is evidence of an extremely old civilization that was advanced for its times, residing in the area. The tepe forms a natural link with the tepes along the northern slopes of the Kopet Dag and shares interesting connections with sites in Balkh and in the eastern Iranian plateau.
|Hasanlu jar 9th cent. BCE|
|Hasanlu Aerial View|
|Hasanlu Topographical site map|
|Hasanlu from west|
Hasanlu is an ancient settlement located close to the southern shore of Lake Urmia in the Solduz Valley of present-day province of West-Azerbaijan, in the northwest of Iran. Hasanlu sat on the cross roads of the trade routes that ran east-west and the route than went south along the Zagros mountains. Hasanlu dominated the small plain of Solduz in the Qadar River valley.
Hasanlu dates from about 7,000 BCE, (the Neolithic era or New Stone Age). It was occupied continuously until its destruction around 825 BCE following a devastating attack when it was burnt to the ground. During that surprise attack some 240 inhabitants were trapped and entombed in the collapsed ruins and fiery debris.
The site was since reoccupied and abandoned until a final occupation during the Achaemenid and Early Parthian periods.
Artefacts have been found in most of Hasanlu's buildings, especially materials stored on their second floors, which were buried in the collapsed ruins. Over 7,000 artefacts have been identified including a wide range of utensils, weapons, jewellery, decorative wall tiles, metal and ceramic vessels, horse gears, and seals. The materials used to make these artefacts include iron, bronze, gold, silver, antimony, shell, ivory, bone, amber, glass, wood, and stone. No written tablets have been recovered.
Hasanlu's site consists of a 25m high central artificial mound called the citadel, with massive fortifications and paved streets. The citadel is surrounded by a low outer town, 8m above the surrounding plain.
The entire site, once much larger but reduced in size by local agricultural and building activities, now measures about 600m across. The citadel has a diameter of about 200 m.
At the end of the second millennium BCE, the top of the citadel mound was occupied by monumental buildings, one of which had a columned hall measuring 18 by 24 meters with four rows of six columns each, a forerunner of later columned halls in Media and Achaemenid Anshan.
Some writers and archaeologists have speculated that the hall is a fire temple.
Also see » Hajji Firuz Tepe, Iran by Mary M. Voigt, Richard H. Meadow at Google.
Hajji Firuz & Godin Tepe. World's Oldest Wine-Making
|Wine jar from Hajji Firuz|
Persians were known for their wine-making, and the site now called Hajji Firuz, just west of Hasanlu, is noted for the discovery of a jar containing the earliest known residue of wine in the world.
The residue contained resin from the Terebinth tree that grew wild in the region, and was possibly used as a preservative indicating that the wine was deliberately made and was not result of the grape juice fermenting unintentionally. Terebinth resin was widely used as a preservative in ancient wine because it killed certain bacteria. Pine resin is currently used in Greek Retsina wine.
The jar with the wine residue, had a volume of about 9 litres (2.5 gallons), and was found together with five similar jars embedded in the earthen floor along one kitchen wall of a Neolithic mud brick building, dated to c. 5400-5000 BCE. Clay stoppers about the same size as the jars' mouths were located close by, suggesting that they could have been used keep out the air and prevent the wine
The building in which the jars were found, consisted of a large room that may have doubled as a bedroom, a kitchen, and two storage rooms. The room thought to be a kitchen had a fireplace and numerous pottery vessels probably used to prepare and cook foods.
It is unclear if the name of the site has any connection with the trickster who is supposed to make an appearance at Nowruz or New Year's day.
At Godin Tepe, a 3500-3000 BCE settlement six hundred km (400 miles) south along the Zagros mountains, additional jars containing wine residues have been found.